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1999 March 27: Philip & Alex blows my tiny mind

I wrote this letter to Philip Greenspun after reading his book, Philip & Alex's Guide to Web Publishing, on the web. He apparently found my embarrassing babblings worthy of encouragement, since he then sent me a complimentary copy of the real book.

Date: Sat, 27 Mar 1999 16:46:26 -0800
From: colin roald 
To: philg@mit.edu
Subject: Re: comment on /wtr/bookshelf.html 

Quoth Philip Greenspun :
> Yes, I thought it was funny that he understood me to be advocating
> FORTRAN II.  What do you expect from a Perl programmer, though?  The
> only reason that they think Perl is OK is because they've never thought
> about programming...
For what it's worth (since on your site you show considerable interest in the trap of academics), I'm an astronomy postdoc who (re-)discovered your site a few days ago, and have been compulsively reading it all since then. ('re-', because somebody pointed me to your discussion of processing scanned images for the web, and my reaction was, 'hey, it's the 'Travels with Samantha' guy!' :-)

Anyway, my position is that I've been aware of the pain of the job market in academics generally for a few years now. I walked into grad school in '92 without ever even really thinking about anything else---I come from an academic family, and it was just what I was always going to do. Gradually I became more aware of the downside, but by the time I really started wondering if physics was actually worth it, the end of my degree was in sight and I decided I wanted to finish it, for the personal accomplishment if nothing else.

So I did, graduated last spring, and got offered this nice postdoc position here at Stanford. By far the easiest road forward from that point was to take the job, so I did, but with the promise to myself that now that the thesis was done I would take time to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. While I have no great confidence that astronomy is really my calling, the problem has been to figure out what *is*. I enjoy programming, but can't see myself being happy in a cube farm. I love the net, but there's no way I could spend my life chasing banner advertising. The Silicon Valley start-up pressure-cooker doesn't really appeal to me either, though I've thought about it.

Which brings me back to your site. :-] The life you describe sounds pretty near ideal to me, to the point that I just went out this afternoon and bought the _Practical SQL Handbook_. The way I figure it, if the degree has taught me anything useful, it's been how to just go out and learn whatever I need for the project at hand, which has just become a public service DB-backed web site.

So, just thought I'd let you know your new book has had at least a week's worth of influence on my life.

colin | opportunity calls from a payphone, bruno. you never get a chance to
roald | call it back.  (christopher baldwin)

Postscript (99/08/03): The initial enthusiasm of this letter lasted for a couple of weeks, until I spent some time actually beating my head against Oracle and reality began to seep back in. More importantly, I discovered I was incapable of abandoning solar physics quite so fast as all that, after having spent all my adult life working towards it. So I spent April through July going over endless lists of reasons to stay and reasons to leave academia, none of which I am going to detail right just now. See the rest of 1999 in this journal.

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